Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NU Re-View: Nebraska 33, Arizona 0

THE GOOD ...
- DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE: Sure, it's stating the obvious, but the Blackshirts absolutely snuffed out any hope Arizona had of competing in the game. To pitch a shutout - the first in Holiday Bowl history and in 'Husker bowl history - is a real testament to how far Bo Pelini has brought the defense since NU lost 65-51 in Bill Callahan's last game.
- UN-TURTLING: Hey, how about that! Open up the playbook a little bit, get a wildcat formation running, get a playmaker like Niles Paul in space, and Nebraska can put up yardage against a pretty solid defensive team. An offensive performance like that not only gives NU confidence going into next year, but also makes NU a much easier sell to offensive recruits. Keep an eye on NU's signings from now until signing day in February. If the 'Huskers land some offensive stars, you can thank that performance in many ways for closing the deal.
- ALEX MVP: It's probably clear by now that I have a bit of a sports crush on Alex Henery, but he did his thing again. He was perfect on field goals (including an almost-effortless 50-yard strike), and killed two more punts inside the UA 10 yard line. Three of the most beautiful words for a 'Husker fan looking towards the 2010 campaign are "junior Alex Henery."

THE BAD ...
- OH, NOW YOU RUN THE WILDCAT!: Sure, it was a ton of fun to watch NU humiliate Arizona in the San Diego rain (it rains in San Diego? Who knew?). But it's a little bittersweet to see NU get that kind of offensive production and show that kind of creativity and wonder what might have been against Texas in the Big XII championship. Cast your mind back towards the end of that game, when a Paul return sets NU up with first down at the Texas 10. Think one of those Burkhead wildcat runs might have been a little more effective than what NU threw at the Longhorns? Just saying ...
- VERY GREEN: True to his word, Pelini gave freshman QB Cody Green a series early in the game. In a word, yeeesh. Every practice report says that Green is improving and playing well. That's sure not translating to his performance when the spotlight is on. Green was very fortunate not to throw a pick-six and potentially give Arizona a little life. He's very young, and hasn't had an opportunity to work a lot with the first team. But, good Lord, it looks like he's got a long way to go before he's going to compete for playing time.
- HELU, GOODBYE: I've also made no secret about my sports crush on Roy Helu, but it became obvious as the game wore on that Rex Burhkead is the starting tailback going into next season. Things can change a lot over an offseason, and maybe this will be a motivator for Helu, but Burkhead looks like he fits NU's new offensive vision a lot more than Helu does.

... AND THE BEGINNING OF THE OVEREXCITEMENT.
Please, don't think I'm trying to be a wet blanket. But ESPN's crew calling the game was in a great hurry to anoint NU as a top-10 team going into next year. I'm all for giving Nebraska some credit - quite honestly, they've been too easily written off since their throttling by Miami in the Rose Bowl in 2001. And while this game certainly was encouraging, I think it might be wise to avoid carving NU's name in any 2010 trophies just yet. Wise, but unlikely. After this performance, 'Husker fans will be dreaming about national titles in the coming year.

THE BIG PICTURE.
Usually, coaches are reserved and try to tamp down expectations. Leave it to Pelini to be contrarian. In the rain, while giving praise to his staff and his players, he finished his speech to the 'Husker faithful with the following:

"Nebraska's back, and we're here to stay."

Cue the t-shirt printing machine. Holy cats, this is a man who is confident in his team coming back. He's already talked about NU being "five times" better next year than this year. Is this bravado? Coach-speak trying to sell recruits? An attempt to raise the bar for his guys in the offseason?

Beats me. I think defensively, though, he's got a lot of reason to be confident. Sure, big Mr. Suh will be gone (but please, please, please, not to the St. Louis Rams), but the area of the defense I have been most impressed with is the growth of the secondary. They're still going to be very good, and I am really interested to see how the defensive line looks with Baker Steinkuhler plugging in Suh's spot. My guess is that you'll see the ends, particularly Pierre Allen, be the stars of the show next year.

It's the offense that's the question. Zac Lee played his best "big" game of his career, hands down. If we get THAT Lee for all 12 games next year, then the offense should be in good shape. It does look like Shawn Watson and Pelini have come to a detente about what the offense should look like, which will make all the difference in the world. Keep in mind, this is a team that had to completely reinvent itself halfway through the season.

But it's still a team with, at best, a question mark at quarterback, one playmaker at wide receiver, and spotty offensive line play. Yes, I'm just as excited as everyone else about the bowl win. But lets not kid ourselves, there's a lot of work for Pelini and Co. to do between now and August 2010 before Nebraska can be thought of as legitimate conference or national title contenders.

I will throw a little gas on the "NU in 2010" fire by looking at the schedule. Good gravy, that's a nicer looking slate than 2009. Only three road tests of note (Washington, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M), with Texas, Kansas, and Missouri at home. If NU is going to make a run, it's not a terrible schedule for it.

What I want to leave you with, though, is a look back to marvel at where NU has come. Two years ago, Nebraska ended it's season by scoring 51 points in Boulder - and losing by two touchdowns. NU gave up 76 points to Kansas - KANSAS, fer cryin' out loud! After that sad season ended, did anyone realistically think that two years later you'd be hearing Craig James talking about NU as a sure-fire pre-season top 10 team?

Heck, just go back to October of 2009. This is the same Nebraska team that lost - at home - to Iowa State. Let me say that again to let it sink in. The same team that lost at home to Iowa freaking State just throttled a team that was three seconds away from the Pac-10 title. It's been a heck of a ride.

Bask in the glow of this one through the haze of basketball season (because, Lord knows, it ain't like Creighton is going to do much to keep you warm). I have to say, I think Mr. Pelini is right on this one. I'll need to see more before I'm ready to start talking trophies, but I think Nebraska is definitely back as a player on the national college football landscape.

Is it August yet?

GBR, baby.

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